A Familiar Refrain

In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond, Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2016)

Philosopher George Santayana’s maxim, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” is frequently quoted, but almost always in a way that contradicts his larger argument.

On the very same page in Reason in Common Sense, Santayana goes on to distinguish between the intellectual capacity of human beings at various stages in life. “In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted,” he writes, “this is the condition of children and barbarians.” Meanwhile, old age “is as forgetful as youth, and more incorrigible.” One’s golden years, Santayana continues, show “the same inattentiveness to conditions” as youth. “Memory becomes self-repeating and degenerates into an instinctive reaction, like a bird’s chirp,” he concludes.

In other words, come a certain age we perceive the world almost exclusively through the lens of past experience and by clinging too closely to memories one distorts contemporary events. Robert Kaplan’s memoir In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond is the book of an old man.

Kaplan begins by outlining his running fascination and personal relationship with Romania, a country that is often overlooked even within Europe. He first visited the country in 1973 before returning in 1981 after a stint in the Israeli army, and the book regularly juxtaposes recollections from those visits with others in 1990, 1998, and 2013. As a format this has potential and at his best Kaplan compares and contrasts images from the various visits to create a sort of collage of Romania past and present.

A description of 1980s buses fueled by dangerous roof-mounted methane tanks illustrates the absurdity of, and lack of concern for, human life under the communist regime. In 2013, Bucharest makes Kaplan feel “as close to the dust-blown urban bleakness of Anatolia” as Central Europe, as the city combines “the architectural legacies of Stalinism with capitalist decadence.”

There Was Not One Singular Event That Terminated the Cold War

However, too often Kaplan badly overplays his hand, and his memories can read a lot like cliché composites concocted for illustrative purposes. “All I can remember,” he writes of a hotel room he stayed in 36 years ago, before going on to describe the color, lighting, bathroom, hallway, television, the telephone, and the process he had to go through to make a phone call. How narratively convenient that this particular 1981 television is showing “speeches of the leader interspersed with folk dancing” at the very moment he checks in to his room.

One might be willing to excuse such passages as over-enthusiasm, but for the same hyperbole bleeding over into other parts of the book. At one point Kaplan declares the Romanian overthrow of Nicolae Ceauşescu as “the singular event which terminated the Cold War in Europe” — an absurd statement that would take a book-length essay to unravel. To start: No one event ended the Cold War. If any single thing symbolized its end, it was the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The Soviet Union persisted for two more years after Ceauşescu’s death. Soviet troops stayed in Czechoslovakia for 15 more months. Need we go on?

Kaplan compares and contrasts images from the various visits to create a sort of collage of Romania past and present.

The biggest trouble seems to be that Kaplan cannot decide if he wrote this book because Romania is a unique place or because he wanted to use it as a platform for discussing grand historical themes. Unfortunately, he dabbles in a bit of both and the result is uneven.When Kaplan sticks to documenting the original features of Romania, In Europe’s Shadow is lucid – even by turns beautiful, but when he drifts into using the country to espouse supposed eternal truths of geopolitics it borders on the schizophrenic.

As Kaplan points out on occasion, the most interesting thing about Romania is that it is not representative at all of Central and Eastern Europe. Romanians are predominantly Orthodox while speaking a Romance language, Soviet troops ceased occupying Romania proper in 1958, and the country was the only former Warsaw Pact member to experience wide-spread violence during the 1989 revolution where some 1,100 people died as Ceauşescu was torn limb from limb by an angry mob. Even Romania’s experience during the Holocaust runs counter to regional patterns. While no doubt horrible in its own right, as historian Timothy Snyder has demonstrated, about two-thirds of Romanian Jews survived the war.

Despite its many shortcomings, as a research project In Europe’s Shadow is a formidable piece of work offering a primer on Romanian history, geography, intellectual currents, culture, and landscape. Kaplan visits small towns, big cities, and the places in between. There are also ample intriguing general factoids – Istanbul’s name, for example, comes out of a distortion of Greek for “to the city,” [I-stin poli]. Mixed with Kaplan’s own observations and a bit of color this travelogue-cum-memoir could be great. Too bad that Kaplan and his editors were not wise enough to make it about 30 percent shorter. Instead, faux-grandeur and amateur philosophizing are orders of the day.

Evocative Descriptions and Pseudo-Philosophical Blather

Perhaps hoping some of their magic might rub off, Kaplan name-drops an array of formidable authors in an attempt to manufacture literary sensibility: André Gide, Robert Musil, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Mann, Hannah Arendt, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Albert Camus, Fernando Pessoa, Isaiah Berlin, Paul Celan, Seamus Heaney, Nikos Kazantzakis, along-side Romanians like Herta Müller, Mircea Eliade, Emil Cioran, and Eugène Ionesco.

While Kaplan seems more than capable of turning a phrase, he often tries way too hard to do so. Evocative descriptions like “a few bent-over old women wearing black kerchiefs” and subtle atmospherics that illicit a “subtle rumor of Turkey” are more than canceled out by pseudo-philosophical blather like: “You don’t grow up gradually. You grow up in short bursts in pivotal moments.” Or, elsewhere: “We travel in order to defeat oblivion.”

“History is never so real as in the candlelit faces of Romanians at Easter,” Kaplan writes in another cringe-inducing passage as convolution like this infuses attempts to connect his wanderings with larger themes. Along with repeatedly reverting back to his deterministic view of geography as the decisive factor in history from his earlier book The Revenge of Geogra-phy—still available in paperback one supposes—he also diverts discussion to espouse the virtues of a realist view of global politics.

This leads him to defending the very worldview—predicated on concepts like spheres of influence as a means of maintaining stability—that delivered Romania to the Soviet sphere after World War II. Such thinking would also concede places like Ukraine, Moldova, the Baltics, and much of the Balkans to the Russian sphere today — something Kaplan dedicates ample verbiage to opposing elsewhere.

Little More Than a Caricature

In a bizarre passage about two-thirds of the way through the book Ka-plan sets about praising Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian statesman fêted by realists for creating a stable European balance of power system in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars that more or less held until World War I. Not only does such thinking require a complete inversion of ends and means but it would also imply that what Kaplan calls “Putin’s revanchism” equates to the natural order of things.

For a realist, Romania would not be “struggling to maintain their equilibrium in the face of Russian aggression,” as he puts it, but rather a legitimate part of a Russian (or Turkish) buffer zone. This is to say nothing of realism’s stubborn insistence that nation states are the preeminent actor in global affairs, a curious contention in the 21st century that would view Ecuador as a real geopolitical player – but not Apple.

The biggest trouble seems to be that Kaplan cannot decide if he wrote this book because Romania is a unique place or because he wanted to use it as a platform for discussing grand historical themes.

In between nice passages about landscapes and descriptions of towns in parts of Romania most will never get to see, this kind of dissonance goes unreconciled and serves as a distraction. Such emphasis on ideologically-charged, sweeping historical claims means the picture that Kaplan paints of contemporary Romania is little more than a caricature.

He finds the Transylvanian city of Sibiu “disappointingly globalized,” before adding: “[T]he locals were no doubt much happier, especially the children, but I treasured my original memory 24 years ago.” Nostalgia like this is indicative of how Romania is portrayed throughout the book – more like a museum than an evolving 21st-century state. Filmmaker Cristian Mungiu, among the most famous Romanians alive today along with ex-sports stars Nadia Comăneci and Ilie Năstase (none of whom are mentioned in this book), has both noticed and lamented similar approaches to his films. “People always relate [my movies] to communism, because they don’t know anything else,” he says.

Mixed with Kaplan’s own observations and a bit of color this travelogue-cum-memoir could be great. Too bad that Kaplan and his editors were not wise enough to make it about 30 percent shorter.

While Mungiu frequently captures both the universal and the particular in his work, Kaplan does not. It is fitting that at one point he cites the Arab proverb: “People resemble their times more than they resemble their fathers.” Indeed, Kaplan’s approach to Romania is that of somebody still trapped in the mid-80s, so much so that even Ronald Reagan makes a cameo as a “great president” who “set history in motion in Eastern Europe” with his “proper compromise between realism and idealism.”

And so after following Kaplan on his “Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond” we end up right back where he began. Chirp!

Benjamin Cunningham

Benjamin Cunningham is a Prague based writer and journalist. He contributes to The Economist, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Politico, and is an opinion columnist for the Slovak daily Sme. Benjamin also works as a professor of journalism at Anglo-American University and produces documentary films for Al Jazeera English. He was formerly editor-in-chief of The Prague Post and a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna.

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